What a lousy night for the home teams. If you like hearing a crazed playoff crowd shut its collective yap, to borrow the phrase of the week from Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella, you had to love Thursday night.
First the Lightning rebounded from a miserable Game 2 to beat the Philadelphia Flyers and take a 2-1 lead in their NHL semifinal, then the Los Angeles Lakers traded miracle shots with the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers getting the last one to take a 3-2 lead in their NBA quarterfinal, and then the San Jose Sharks avoided going down 3-0 in the other NHL semi by shutting out the Calgary Flames. All three winners were visitors.
The Lakers-Spurs finish was the kind of thing that makes the playoffs worth sitting through that boring regular season for. Did you see it? Holy cow, on a normal night, even a normal playoff night, Kobe Bryant coming off a Karl Malone pick to drain a go-ahead jumper with 11.5 seconds left would have been something to talk about, but by the time the game ended, it was forgotten.
Tim Duncan took an inbounds pass with five seconds left, down by a point, dribbled left to the free-throw line with Shaquille O'Neal playing perfect defense, and then hit a shot off his wrong foot, falling down, with 0.4 seconds to go. Pandemonium! The Spurs dog-pile like a World Series winner. They'll be replaying that shot in San Antonio for 25 years!
But wait a minute, the Lakers only trailed by one and still had that fraction left. They wanted to inbound to Bryant, but he was covered, so Fisher flashed free, took the pass from Gary Payton and, in one motion, turned and swished it. Lakers win. The Spurs filed a protest that the clock hadn't started promptly, but replays showed clearly that it had, and that the ball had left Fisher's hands before the buzzer. An incredible sequence that may have finished the Spurs. They'll have to win in L.A., then win at home again to survive.
On ESPN, Steven A. Smith said, "Series is over. I love San Antonio. Tremendous year, tremendous champion, great for basketball -- love y'all! But you're finished."
Maybe he's right, but how can you watch that crazy Game 5 ending and claim to know what's going to happen next? I haven't even bothered to back up far enough to mention that the Lakers blew a 16-point third-quarter lead before all that last-second stuff Thursday.
Anyone trying to take a crystal ball to this series is nuts. Forget the next game. You can't even predict what's going to happen in the next four-tenths of a second.
There were other visiting exploits worth watching Thursday -- and worth investing in some good recording equipment if you don't already have it, because the hockey games both overlapped with the basketball game. I wish we could do something about that, like have designated hockey and basketball nights, but then that would make the postseason last all year and we'd have to just scratch the regular season.
Say, that's a good idea.
Anyway, both winning goalies Thursday, Nikolai Khabibulin of the Lightning and Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks, absolutely stood on their heads, and both were coming off bad outings. Khabibulin was pulled in the second period of Game 2, and Nabokov had been merely subpar in the Sharks' two losses.
Then there was Martin St. Louis of the Lightning launching Vincent Lecavalier on a breakaway with an eyes in the back of his head pass from the boards, Lecavalier scoring for a 3-1 lead. Talk about shutting up the home crowd. The Lightning had taken a 2-0 first-period lead on a couple of soft goals, but the Flyers roused the Wachovia Center fans 36 seconds into the third period when Keith Primeau scored to make it 2-1. Lecavalier's goal came 43 seconds later, with the crowd still cheering the announcement of Primeau's score.
That pretty much ended the game, but it was worth sticking around for the Lightning's last goal, a tic-tac-toe passing play by St. Louis and Brad Richards, a 1970s Canadiens kind of play. You can watch it in slow motion and still be amazed that human beings can think and react that quickly.
There was a breakaway goal in the Sharks-Flames game too, Alex Korolyuk going in alone and beating Miikka Kiprusoff. I don't think there was a soul in the Saddledome stands who wasn't wearing red, and they made enough noise to blow the, uh, whatever you want to call that roof thing off the place. Until that goal made it 2-0 Sharks.
I love it when a packed house is reduced to stunned silence by visiting-team heroics, unless I'm rooting for the home team, of course. I also love it when a packed house is going crazy for its triumphant heroes -- unless those heroes beat my guys. Sort of can't go wrong come playoff time as long as one of my teams isn't involved, and what could be better than having one of your teams involved? But there's something sort of delicious about a big crowd silenced.
There hasn't been enough road-team celebrating in the NBA playoffs so far. Home teams were 14-2 in the second round before Fisher's shot. The hosts went 27-12 in the first round, which is better, but most of that was because first-round series are such mismatches that the underdogs don't even have much of a chance on their own floor. The ridiculously underqualified 6, 7 and 8 seeds went a combined 2-10 at home.
It's light years better in hockey, where the home team went 30-17 in the first round, with 6, 7 and 8 seeds going 7-8 at home and winning two series. Overall the hosts are only 44-31 in the playoffs, and in the current round, the visitors have won five of six games.
Former NBA sharpshooter Steve Kerr, now a TV analyst, wrote an interesting piece for Yahoo Sports about why it's so tough to win on the road in the NBA playoffs. He cited the usual factors -- the energy from the home crowd, sleeping in your own bed -- and added some entertaining stories from his own career. There was the time in Chicago when the visiting Utah Jazz didn't use fake names at their hotel, and got a bunch of wake-up calls at 5 a.m. on a game day from a local D.J. And then in the same series a marching band serenaded Kerr's Bulls at 5 a.m. on the day of a game in Salt Lake.
There's an elephant in the room, right? The officials. We all know they're influenced by the home crowd into calling more fouls against the visiting team. At least I knew that. Or I thought I did.
Guess what: Through Thursday night, there had been 56 playoff games this year. The home team had been whistled for 1,279 fouls. The visitors? They'd been whistled for the exact same number, 1,279.
Maybe those 5 a.m. phone calls really work.
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Timeout, timeout, timeout [PERMALINK]
Let's stroll down memory lane to the fifth paragraph of this column. Remember when I said, "But wait a minute, the Lakers only trailed by one and still had that fraction left"?
I didn't mean wait a minute. I meant wait a minute, and then another, and another, and then another, and you're still just beginning to wait.
From the moment Kobe Bryant hit that jumper to put the Lakers up by one with 11.5 seconds left to the moment Derek Fisher hit his buzzer-beater for the win, nine minutes elapsed. Eleven and a half seconds of basketball in nine minutes. That's an inaction to action ratio of about 47:1. If the entire game were played at that ratio, it would take more than 37 hours. And they'd still be calling timeouts at the end.
Here's how the sequence went: Bryant jumper; Spurs timeout; Spurs inbound and the Lakers foul with 5.4 seconds left; Spurs timeout; Spurs inbound and Duncan hits his shot with 0.4 seconds left; Lakers timeout; Spurs timeout; Lakers timeout; Lakers inbound and Fisher hits the game-winner.
Five timeouts in 11 seconds! Three timeouts in a row! Good grief, NBA, do something about this. I know there are those who believe this sort of thing helps build drama, that the endgame chess match between the coaches is nerve-wracking and thrilling. All I have to say to those people is that they're free to watch chess but I like to watch basketball. At the most exciting, nail-biting time of the game, basketball players should be playing basketball, not holding endless committee meetings.
My solution: You can't have commercials without timeouts, and you can't have broadcasts without commercials. I get that. So let the teams keep their allotted timeouts, and for all I care they can have an extra one or two to use during the game. But in the last minute, each team can only call timeout once. And you can't call consecutive timeouts. The clock has to move between them.
Three timeouts in a row. That's not basketball. It's a work stoppage.
Previous column: Pat Tillman letters
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